Fact check: Nursing newborns are not having reactions to COVID-19 vaccine
The claim: Breastfeeding newborns are having reactions to vaccinated mothers
In an effort to quell the coronavirus pandemic and wrest the country back to normal, President Joe Biden announced in March his plan to expand vaccine eligibility to all U.S. adults by May 1. That timeline has been moved up by two weeks, the president announced April 6.
Opening up the vaccine eligibility is good news: New coronavirus cases have been falling in the last several months, although recently stalled, and the number of reported daily deaths dropped to its lowest point in more than a year on April 4. It's hoped that with more vaccines reaching everyone, there is a greater likelihood these trends would continue.
But on social media, vaccine apprehension and hesitancy live on, with one claim alleging breastfeeding babies are experiencing adverse reactions because of their vaccinated mothers.
Shared to Facebook on March 30, text above an image of an unidentified child covered in rashes asks if "anyone heard anything about babies having reactions when their nursing moms get the covid vaccine?"
A Facebook comment below the image appears to provide an explanation.
"Lyndsi received her second dose last Wednesday. Thursday her breastfed baby was covered in a head to toe rash. By that night he was inconsolable and declining so they went to the ER," writes Caitlyn RN, who in her Facebook profile says she is a registered nurse.
Caitlyn RN alleges that once at the hospital, the baby was diagnosed with thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, or TTP, an infrequent and incredibly rare blood disorder where blood clots form in small blood vessels throughout the body, along with elevated liver enzymes. Despite "various treatments," the child died on March 16.
Comments below the image relay condolences to the poster, who denies any relation with the child pictured, and concerns about the vaccine's safety for nursing women.
"I thought breastfeeding mothers aren't supposed to take the shot," says one Facebook user.
"And I'm not getting the vaccine... Everyone else can be the test tubes not me my friend," writes the original poster.
USA TODAY has reached out to the Facebook user and Caitlyn RN for further comment.
Image not the same child, death not verified
Caitlyn RN's Facebook comment included in the photo originates from a March 17 post where she mentions the death of a friend's 5-month-old son, using it to warn pregnant women and nursing mothers to "steer clear of these experimental vaccines."
In a March 31 post, she clarifies that the rash-covered child pictured in the image and the child referred to in the March 17 post are not the same.
"The baby I reported about passing away after mom got the second Pfizer vaccine is NOT this baby pictured from the Vaccination Re-education Discussion Forum. I specified such in my original post but it seems to be getting overlooked. The pictured infant is apparently doing much better as of a week ago when I last saw an update," she writes.
USA TODAY has not been able to verify whether the infant death discussed in the original post actually happened. In her March 31 post, Caitlyn RN would not provide any further details when asked by Facebook users to verify her claim, but in the March 17 post, she said the death would be reported to the U.S. government's Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. USA TODAY could not find any reports of TTP-related deaths among infants because of a mother's vaccination or other cases involving similar conditions, such as immune thrombocytopenic purpura (known to affect a few Pfizer vaccine recipients).
Breastfeeding and COVID-19 vaccination
If a nursing mother gets vaccinated, is there any risk to the child? Health experts say that's not likely.
"During lactation, it is unlikely that the vaccine lipid would enter the blood stream and reach breast tissue. If it does, it is even less likely that either the intact nanoparticle or mRNA transfer into milk. In the unlikely event that mRNA is present in milk, it would be expected to be digested by the child and would be unlikely to have any biological effects," said the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine in a December statement.
The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund acknowledged while there is little data on the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine in nursing women and breastfeeding children, "as the vaccine is not a live virus vaccine and the mRNA does not enter the nucleus of the cell and is degraded quickly, it is biologically and clinically unlikely to pose a risk to the breastfeeding child."
New data on the vaccine's safety in breastfeeding women is emerging, and it's showing COVID-19 vaccination protects not only the mother but the child as well.
A recent study from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found vaccinated nursing mothers may pass on protective, anti-coronavirus antibodies to their babies through breast milk for at least 80 days after vaccination.
Antibody levels in the breast milk of five nursing mothers – children's ages ranging from 1 month to 2 – were measured before vaccination and on a weekly basis until the 80 days after their initial dose.
"Our study showed a huge boost in antibodies against the COVID-19 virus in breast milk starting two weeks after the first shot, and this response was sustained for the course of our study, which was almost three months long," said Dr. Jeannie Kelly, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and first author on the study, in a statement released by Washington University. "The antibodies levels were still high at the end of our study, so the protection likely extends even longer."
Kelly said her group's findings add to the growing body of evidence supporting COVID-19 vaccination in pregnant and lactating women.
"This is information we didn't have a few months ago, and it's really helping us better counsel our patients who are considering getting the vaccine. I'm telling my pregnant and breastfeeding moms that I strongly recommend that they get vaccinated as soon as possible," she said.
Our ruling: Missing context
We rate this claim MISSING CONTEXT because without additional context it might be misleading. The graphic of a child covered in rashes is not the same child mentioned in the Facebook comment claiming a child died after the mother got a COVID-19 vaccine. It is unclear whether the death actually occurred; there is no such report in the government's Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. Several medical agencies and organizations have said that the COVID-19 vaccine is unlikely to harm a breastfeeding child and that maternal vaccination may confer protective immunity against the virus, according to emerging research.
Our fact-check sources:
- USA TODAY, March 11, "Takeaways from Biden's speech: Small gatherings by July 4, denouncing racist attacks and a contrast to Trump"
- USA TODAY, April 6, "Biden to move up deadline to make all adults eligible for COVID-19 vaccine by April 19"
- The New York Times, April 6, "As Variants Have Spread, Progress Against the Virus in the U.S. Has Stalled"
- The Hill, April 5, "Reported daily COVID-19 deaths dropped to lowest point in year on Sunday"
- National Institutes of Health - National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, accessed April 9, "Thrombotic Thrombocytopenic Purpura"
- StatPearls, July 10, 2020, "Thrombotic Thrombocytopenic Purpura Evaluation and Management"
- Caitlyn RN, March 17, Facebook post.
- Caitlyn RN, March 31, Facebook post.
- The New York Times, Feb. 8, "A Few Covid Vaccine Recipients Developed a Rare Blood Disorder"
- Medscape, April 2, "Human Milk and Lactation"
- Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, Dec. 14, 2020, "ABM Statement Considerations for COVID-19 Vaccination in Lactation"
- UNICEF, accessed April 9, "What you need to know about a COVID-19 vaccine"
- Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, April 6, "For breastfeeding moms, COVID-19 vaccinations may also protect babies"
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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.